Anne Notations

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why we grieve

Over the past several months I have become blog friends with a young woman who mourns the tragic drowning death of her husband last summer. J is articulate and honest as she shows, not just tells, what grief feels like day in and day out. I am stunned by the clarity and beauty of her writing even as my heart breaks for her.

While I have felt the knife-sharp loss and lingering darkness that followed the deaths of my parents and several close friends, I can only imagine how much more debilitating the death of a spouse, lover, or child would be. J, left alone to raise her beautiful toddler daughter, is working through the maze of loss, not always as quickly or graciously as others might wish. She is doing it her way, at her pace. She has received counseling and the support of loved ones, but ultimately grief may be the loneliest voyage of all. There is no universal chart to steer the bereaved away from the jagged rocks of pain and speed them toward the shores of healing.

I sent J a passage that was recently the daily book excerpt I receive from Delancy Place. Here it is, followed by my thoughts. This is from The Brain in Love by Daniel G. Amen, MD:

What happens in the brain when you lose someone you love? Why do we hurt, long, even obsess about the other person?

When we love someone, they come to live in the emotional or limbic centers of our brains. He or she actually occupies nerve-cell pathways and physically lives in the neurons and synapses of the brain.

When we lose someone, either through death, divorce, moves, or breakups, our brain starts to get confused and disoriented. … When we cannot hold her or talk to her as we usually do, the brain centers where she lives becomes inflamed looking for her.

Overactivity in the limbic brain has been associated with depression and low serotonin levels, which is why we have trouble sleeping, feel obsessed, lose our appetites, want to isolate ourselves, and lose the joy we have about life. A deficit in endorphins, which modulate pain and pleasure pathways in the brain, also occurs, which may be responsible for the physical pain we feel."

Revolutionary, to think of a loved one living in some measurable, physical way in one's brain! My thoughts, which I shared with J:

I am attracted to Dr. Amen's explanation for the physical ache, even torture, of grief and loss because I crave biological and chemical explanations for human emotions and behaviors. I strive to be unromantic about our emotionality. On the other hand, I consider myself spiritual and sometimes religious. Amen's model works for that side of me, too: Our physical brains are made, hard-wired if you will, for attachment and love.

It's simplistic to call this neural phenomenon part of a grand design concocted by an overarching intelligence. Yet I yearn to believe that our capacity for love is a signpost in the cosmic wilderness of "why".

(How appropriate that the author's last name is Amen. Indeed.)


  • Loved this phrase:
    "but ultimately grief may be the loneliest voyage of all. There is no universal chart to steer the bereaved away from the jagged rocks of pain and speed them toward the shores of healing."

    Sent this phrase to two friends who suddenly lost their spouses on the same day last April.
    I always enjoy your writing...

    By Blogger r_weeks, at Sun Feb 27, 10:02:00 PM EST  

  • I haven't stopped by here for a long time, and I read this entry just now. Thank you for writing this. - Deirdre

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 01, 11:30:00 PM EST  

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